Nearly 50 years ago, I hopped in an old car and traveled across the country, landing in California. The old car (the beast) broke down in Boulder, Colorado, for two weeks when the oil pump failed and the engine froze, costing a good deal of the money I'd saved while in Asia. I wandered in the local mountains as mechanics did their magic, restoring the beast to life, which kindly lasted another few years.
Three years away in an Asian war hadn't changed much at home except my old boss had moved on. The new guy decided that returning veterans might pose a risk to kids, so he got a legal opinion and a loophole to deny re-employment rights. I had worked for the local parks department before enlisting and had ventured to City Hall to fill out an interest card for the police or fire department when the new guy hailed me to give me the good news. It was probably one of the best things to happen as it provided the motivation to move away as far as possible without swimming the Pacific.
The trip across country was uneventful after Colorado, except that gas at one point cost only 19 cents a gallon, down from its normal 29 cents. A friend had relocated with his folks to the Nipomo Mesa and they offered me lodging for a few days in an old camper shell parked adjacent to his folks' home. He was on a roofing job in Morro Bay, so the beast and I set out for the coast. I got lost, missing the turnoff to Morro Bay, and finally called back to Nipomo from a place called Paso Robles. My friend's mom said go south on Highway 101 to Atascadero and take the Morro Road, Highway 41, turnoff to Morro Bay. I'm not sure what she said when she mentioned "Atas-ca-What?" but somehow I ended up in Morro Bay.
Finding a job was next, and the first offer came from the railroad, off-loading 50,000 pounds of frozen fish near a tunnel at the grade. At 2 a.m., a bunch of us were hauling boxes of frozen fish at the Cuesta Grade railroad tunnel from a derailed freight car as railroad police looked on, growling about pilferers being dealt with severely. None of us were really that hungry for raw frozen fish. Our next foray was in a freight yard off-loading other cargo, like furniture from a damaged freight car.
Another great opportunity opened at a place called Diablo Canyon, walking a guard dog all night to ensure nobody made off with reactor parts in a maintenance yard. Since the average part weighed about 250 tons, I doubted that the dog would be much of a deterrent to anyone so inclined to pilfer anything weighing tons versus pounds. The most entertaining moments came when the mutt, with the rank of sergeant and making 25 cents more an hour than a patrolman (me), cornered a badger. That wasn't going to turn out well for either of us, so after a frantic five minutes of snarling teeth, the mutt was convinced that there were better options in life than wrestling with a buzz saw of claws and teeth. A stroke of brilliance at that moment also motivated me to check out the college my friend had mentioned.
Cuesta College didn't look like much at first glance. It had lots of mud and consisted of broken-down National Guard buildings with poor heating and no cooling, as I recall. My memory isn't that good, but I do remember it was cold inside when it rained, as it did a lot in 1972. However, the price was right: $15 a semester plus books. With savings and $200 per month from the G.I. Bill, I could make rent, tuition and books, and a cup of coffee in the morning. Lunch was optional and dinner was creative, but with part-time work, all was well.
The best part was the independence and sense that the future held hope. Also, did I forget to mention that California girls lived up to the expectations of the Beach Boys' song, "California Girls"? I met my future wife, Roberta, at Cuesta; her long blond hair, green eyes, and a streak of independence made her incredibly interesting. We've gotten along well for the last 45 years of marriage. Someday, she might even let me know I'm off probation.
I mentioned that California held a sense of hope for the future. I'm not sure I could say that today. Gas is at least $2 more a gallon than anywhere else in the nation and rising; tuition at Cuesta today is as high as tuition at Cal Poly was in 1974. Even with the expanded G.I. Bill, which is 10 times higher than what Vietnam veterans received, it's virtually impossible to find affordable housing on a limited income. Jobs at places like Diablo Canyon are evaporating, and workers commute ever longer distances to find work.
Freedom was in the air in '72. Today, California is mired in a regulatory morass. If I were to make a similar journey today, it would probably be to "go East young man, the California dream is fading." Δ
Al Fonzi is an Army lieutenant colonel of military intelligence who had a 35-year military career, serving in both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Send comments through the editor at email@example.com.